19 May Why Taiwanese Investors Should Think About Becoming Chinese (At Least When Suing Vietnam)
I’ve been settling into my digs this summer at the National Taiwan University College of Law as a visiting research fellow with the support from a grant from the Taiwan Fellowship. Mostly, I’ve been spending my time eating my way through what I believe is the best Chinese food scene in the world (I am posting pictures of my eating exploits on my facebook page for those interested in Chinese food).
But in between absurdly delicious meals, I have also been following the anti-Chinese riots in Vietnam that have caused over 500 different businesses to be shut down there over the past week and thousands of Chinese and Taiwanese nationals to flee Vietnam. Those violent riots were apparently in response to China’s placement of an oil rig in disputed South China Sea waters.
The lively Taiwanese media has been following these riots with much more intensity than their Chinese counterparts, because a large proportion of the burned or trashed businesses are actually owned by Taiwanese nationals, with Chinese workers or managers administering it for them. TV news here is filled with pictures of Taiwanese flying home with harrowing stories of dodging rioters by hiding in trash cans, etc. Their plight has caused some soul-searching here in Taiwan because Taiwan’s status as a non-country that is recognized in Vietnam only as a province of China means they receive the blowback for China’s actions and Taiwan’s government has limited means to respond and protect their own nationals. (Their foreign ministry did helpfully issue stickers to their nationals saying, in Vietnamese, “I am from Taiwan”. Reminds me of the time I was told to put little Canadian flags on my backpack when I wandered through sketchy areas of Egypt).
In addition to advising their nationals to emphasize their “Taiwaneseness”, the Taiwan government’s main action has been to invoke the 1993 Taiwan-Vietnam Investment Promotion and Protection Agreement (in Chinese). The Taiwan government is using this agreement as proof that it can protect and seek compensation for its nationals abroad.
This is sort of like a bilateral investment treaty, but not quite, because of Taiwan’s odd non-country status. It is technically an agreement between the “Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Vietnam and the Vietnam Economic and Cultural Office in Taipei” which means it is an agreement between two quasi-government agencies, and not the governments as a whole. This means it is unlikely to be governed by international law, although the agreement doesn’t choose any governing law either. Moreover, the agreement does not provide for referral to an ICSID tribunal for any investor claims against the host government (in this case Vietnam). Rather, it seems to allow for referral to arbitration under the “1988 International Chamber of Commerce” Rules.
Moreover, such referrals seem to require the mutual consent of the parties in Article 8. This might allow Vietnam to block a referral to arbitration by a Taiwanese investor. (Oops! This provision refers to disagreements between the two parties to the agreement, not the investor and the host state. Sorry about the misreading. But I think my larger critical take stands). Since the Agreement doesn’t otherwise waive Vietnam’s state immunity, I am not confident about the ability of an investor to enforce any awards from an ICC tribunal without such consent anyway.
In other words, I am skeptical that the Taiwan-Vietnam Agreement is going to be very effective at winning compensation for investors. Instead, if I was a Taiwanese investor, I would think about invoking the Vietnam-China BIT. True, that agreement is limited to natural persons and economic entities who have the “nationality of the People’s Republic of China”, but it is not entirely clear this would exclude the PRC’s “Taiwanese compatriots” who are officially treated in China as “nationals” for some purposes. Even if this argument doesn’t fly, many of the Taiwanese companies in Vietnam may have Chinese national employees or entities that could make a claim on their behalf. Of course, this would be pretty bad PR here in Taiwan, where no one really wants to be associated with the Chinese government. But if they managed to get an ICSID tribunal constituted, a Taiwanese investor has a much better chance to forcing Vietnam to pay out compensation under the Vietnam-China BIT than the Vietnam-Taiwan agreement. Another example of why being a non-state is such a pain for Taiwan and the Taiwanese.